Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga ****
Dir: Shelly Chopra Dhar. With: Anil Kapoor, Sonam K. Ahuja, Juhi Chawla, Rajkummar Rao. 120 mins. Cert: 12A
Once India decriminalised homosexuality last September, many wondered anew: what would a Bollywood romcom look and sound like with a non-straight protagonist? The answer, it transpires, is: much the same as any other Bollywood romcom. Shelly Chopra Dhar’s film, a groundbreaker in the garb of a crowdpleaser, is a light comedy of errors (tangentially inspired by Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress) shot in eye-caressing pastels, with a smattering of keening songs and the reassuring star presence of father-daughter pairing Anil Kapoor and Sonam K. Ahuja. After nursing this otherwise atypical project into cinemas, the pair have kept mum in promotional interviews, preferring to let the finished feature do their messaging for them. That was one smart decision among many hereabouts.
Dhar’s script, for starters, makes very crafty play with our expectations. It’s initially uncertain what sort of – and whose – story this is: the ambiguous title (“How I Felt When I Saw That Girl”) floats over multiple characters. We meet Ahuja’s Sweety – romcom name, romcom kind of gal – at a traditional wedding, shrugging off eligible bachelors. Yet focus rapidly veers towards Sahil (Rajkummar Rao), a put-upon playwright who tumbles for our heroine after she crashes his rehearsal space. His subsequent pursuit of Sweety – online, then up her family home’s trellis – mimics that semi-creepy hetero romcom trope recently skewered by TV’s You. Rao’s oddball presence intrigues us, however, and it’s a witty touch that the pair should reconvene at an acting class, for Sweety has a once-unspeakable truth to express.
The soaringly meta second half does everything it can to encourage Sweety to make that truth public, now with Sahil as an ally, effectively rewriting Hamlet’s The Mousetrap for a happier ending. Dhar anticipates potential responses with the mixed reactions of her onscreen audience, though her supporting cast (particularly Juhi Chawla as a radiant beacon of liberalism) capably outline the many roles decent folk can play in combating intolerance. That wisdom ensures Ek Ladki Ko Dekha… transcends what Love, Simon achieved in Hollywood: its baby steps, placed with such care that only bigots could object to their orientation, carry us into moving territory indeed. A closet door has been opened here, calmly yet decisively and resonantly: it remains to be seen what – and who – comes out from behind it.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is now playing in cinemas nationwide.